Autoethnography, like ethnography, is both method and text. That is, it is a textual record of people and places, and way of doing qualitative research that relies on participant observation or using the ethnographic method of embedding the researcher in settings in order to write about social groups unlike those of the re searcher. In contrast to ethnography, autoethnography is distinguishable by its explicitly self referential mode of writing, whereby the divide between participant and observer is blurred and even ignored, and the text produced refers explicitly to the author. In autoethnography, there are two ways of conceptualizing the ethnographer/author: as an ethnographer writing autobiographically, or an ethnographic subject writing ethnographically about her or his culture. These two authorial positions complicate researchers’ understanding of the term and in the application of it as a method. This article examines these applications and complex yet intertwined understandings of autoethnography.
The two ways that geographers understand autoethnography are discrete but closely interlinked. First, autoethnography is a type of ethnographic representation that is a blend of autobiographical and ethnographical data. In this use, the ‘auto’ refers to ethnographer, who incorporates biographical data. Second, autoethnography is a text, however, loosely defined, which is produced by an author who has more often been the subject of ethnographic writing. For Western trained ethnographers, this form of autoethnographic text is one that they wish to study, and thus ethnographers may engage in those autoethnographic moments by cultivating an ‘autoethnographic sensibility’. An autoethnographic sensibility relies upon the recognition by the ethnographer that a subject is representing him or herself using the idiom of ethnography, whether textual or performative, perhaps to engage dialogically with those who would represent them. These two modes are usually considered separate from one another and build upon the previous understandings of autoethnography within anthropology and sociology, where ethnography and autoethnography have been used more widely. While it is useful to consider each as discrete modes, they increasingly inform one another, and what unites them is their insistence upon a rethinking how a socially constructed self produces knowledge about others.
One potential of autoethnography is how it might contribute to a more nuanced understanding of transcultural interactions in postcolonial research settings specifically, although not exclusively. Transcultural interactions are the material and discursive manifestations of interactions between groups of people positioned in asymmetrical relations of domination and subordination. In that the research process may be conceptualized as dialog between researcher and researcher which becomes a textual representation of that dialog, their interactions are also necessarily contextualized by a myriad power relations that must be carefully considered. It is the potential of autoethnography to work toward a more fully articulated postcolonial research method in human geography that considers these transcultural relations of power, which makes it an especially significant method for geographers’ consideration, a point that the conclusion of this article takes up in more detail.